Creating a killer technical presentation is hard. If it were easy, we would not see so dramatic a difference between presentations. Some of them are engaging and entertaining, have a long lasting impact and get the message delivered and some are dull and boring and your mind starts wandering and you start looking at your watch to see how long you have left to suffer sitting here.
Of course it takes some talent and experience to be a better presenter, but you can vastly improve if you know how to do it.
Here is my story:
I submitted my talk to the MongoDB NYC conference for the first time in my life and got accepted by the committee. Well, I was very excited and created my presentation. I would say it was a typical corporate presentation. I had a long list of bullet points to talk about; some pictures, a source code to show how to do things, and knew where I should highlight important parts with the laser pointer and so on. I practiced in front of my manager, who added a couple of good points.
But I had a feeling that something was not good, and that I was missing something. Having been to many tech conferences as an attendee, I have a couple of favorite speakers – Venkat Subramaniam and Neal Ford – I always look forward to their session at any conference. I follow Neal Ford’s blog and noticed that he had written a book called:
“Presentation Patterns: Techniques for Crafting Better Presentations”. Exactly 3 days before my talk I start reading this book, wondering what Neal had to say on the subject. And I am so glad I did. It was like an eye opener.
The book consists of 3 parts – preparation for a presentation, creating a presentation and delivery of a presentation. Each part is broken down into pattern and anti-pattern. Like in software development, patterns are the things you want to do and anti-patterns what you have to avoid.
Reading first part I realized that I did not have a clear story line for my presentation.
Neal called it “Narrative Arc” pattern.
“A narrative arc is the sequence of events in a story from beginning to middle to end. A typical narrative arc describes the trials and tribulations of the story’s characters as they move through the plot and how they are resolved. Much literature follows this basic structure—and much of presenting is actually storytelling.” One of the approaches to create this patter is implicit problem/solution structure. It was relatively easy to alter my presentation into this type of pattern. Now I had small sections, each containing some context, problems to solve and solutions – allowing for the audience to easily follow along.
Then there is another pattern that is extremely important – called Crucible. “Delivering a presentation isn’t the same as constructing it. But the presentation will change (sometimes drastically) under the pressure of giving it. Learn to embrace and leverage these potential improvements.”
Basically, deliver you presentation – show it to coworkers, to friends- it helps drastically. I presented my talk at a team meeting and my coworkers gave me some good points, critiques and more importantly, it build up my confidence because I already had delivered my presentation to small groups of people.
Presentation building section talks about 2 anti-patterns that my original presentation had: using a laser pointer. “The laser pointer seems like such a useful device at first look because it gives you a way of highlighting, identifying, and harmlessly drawing on the presentation surface as you deliver your talk.” But in reality, it is not. I was trying to highlight a portion of my code with a laser pointer, but I am glad I did not in my final version. I spend time and did highlights of the code using graphic tools. When I came to the venue, this paid off. I had a setup where the stage was in the middle, with nothing behind the stage, and 2 huge screens far away on the left and right side of the room approximately 20 feet on each side from the podium. There would be no way I could use laser pointer.
Next antipatter I got rid of was Bullet-Riddled Corpse. “A Bullet-Riddled Corpse is a slide that prominently uses bullet points and more bullet points, sometimes in columns. In many cases, the slides are little more than a speaker’s notes. They’re word-heavy and surprisingly comforting in their familiarity to both presenters and audiences only because of their pervasiveness.” Again, it helps tremendously to make my presentation very clean.
I was watching the same day other presenters, who probably never read this book, and they had a long list of bullet points on the screen. I found myself just reading them all and not paying any attention to the speaker’s narrative. Don’t do bullet points.
I have added “Coda” patterns so people have a nice resource section to do more research and reading on the topic. You have to care about your audience, what they learn, and is the time with you worth it. Remember, people are paying a lot of money to attend the conference, companies pay in lost working days, and hundreds of professionals are listening to you – your presentation should be worth it and provide additional material, which was impossible to cover in 30-40 minutes. Your presentation can became a source of knowledge and provide further research even when you are done. Most of the conferences are now publishing their talks online or distribute them to attendees.
Last section in the book was Delivering Presentation. Here Neal is talking about Carnegie Hall pattern – basically – practice, practice, practice. Deliver you presentation loud, in front of people, animals, and stuffed toys. It does not matter. Just practice, the more the better. I found a big empty conference room in my office, projected my slides on a big screen and did my presentation out loud to myself. It helps a lot with my voice and confidence. I notice some problems, made notes and corrected them.
This is a very useful technique – so project it on a big screen and do it.
Another pattern that helped me a lot was Greek Chorus. “Seed the audience with some partisans who interject comments, display enthusiasm, or help defend your case if you are outnumbered. I had my coworkers sit in the front row, and I asked other people who I have met at the conference to come to my talk so I had a friendly environment and could establish eye contact with them during my talk. This helped tremendously to ease my nerves and I was very concentrated and calm.
At the end, my talk was received very well, with almost all positive feedbacks, people asked questions after the talk, connected with me later,
told me they remembered what I was talking about. Of course, there is a long road to improve my presentation skills, make my talks more engaging and entertaining, but it comes with practice and experience.
I am very happy I came across this excellent book. There are many other patterns in this book that I am planning gradually to master and introduce into my presentations. This is one of the rare books that every software professional should have.